The Sacred and Contemporary Paganism

•October 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A discussion of “the Sacred” within Contemporary Paganism is often mixed, consisting of varying opinions and views that sometimes clash with each other.  This is understandable, as it is a topic of multitudinous perspectives concerning the nature of the concept and what – if anything – that ultimately entails.  That which is considered Sacred in Paganism consists of any number of things – items, locations, periods of time, etc., creating an object or location that maintains an essential feature of connection with the divine, that which confers or implies this state of sacredness.  Popular opinions in Paganism hold, commonly, that “Nature is Sacred”, or “all land is sacred”, or some quality of existence possesses an intrinsic sacred element that is expected to be broadly recognized across a myriad of religious identities.

“Sacred” is thus one of those terms which is used with a fair bit of frequency within our varying religious paradigms.  It fills various roles and positions within the religious dialogue of several Contemporary Pagan communities, none of which are exactly the same.  However, like much other formative and fundamental concepts within the discussion of the various facets of Paganism, like that of Prayer, that which is “the Sacred” is used ubiquitously throughout dialogue, often to the point of inarticulation.  People know what “the Sacred” is,  but they often cannot express it.

The discussion of “the Sacred” within Contemporary Paganism is often mixed and consisting of varying opinions and views.  It is a topic of multitudinous perspectives as to the nature of the concept and what, if anything, it ultimately entails.  That which is Sacred in Paganism is any number of things: items, locations, periods of time, etc, consisting of an essential feature or connection with the divine which is what confers or implies this state of sacredness.  We hear, commonly that “Nature is Sacred”, or “all land is sacred”, or some other quality of existence possesses an intrinsic sacredness which is broadly recognized.  

Lately, John Beckett wrote a post detailing the five falsehoods which he views as prevalent within the Pagan community.  The broad positions of the post are apt and common, and I agree with several of them – if not all of them – in essence.  What Beckett does do is touch upon “the Sacred” in such a manner that I feel it requires a bit of digging through perspectives for consideration.  Given the incredibly nuanced understanding of what “the Sacred” entails and consists of, perhaps a discussion could be had to proactively increase the awareness of this concept.

“Sacred” is defined in a multitude of ways, and some of these varying definitions are given below, all taken from Wiktionary.  Sacred is thus:

  1. Characterized by solemn religious ceremony or religious use, especially, in a positive sense; consecrated; made holy.  
  2. a sacred place; a sacred day; sacred service
  3. Religious; relating to religion, or to the services of religion; not secular   
  4. Spiritual; concerned with metaphysics.
  5. Designated or exalted by a divine sanction; possessing the highest title to obedience, honor, reverence, or veneration; entitled to extreme reverence; venerable.
  6. Not to be profaned or violated; inviolable.
  7. (followed by the preposition “to”) Consecrated; dedicated; devote

The various meanings of “the Sacred” is apparent in these definitions.  Definitions which, I must stress, are not wrong or incorrect.  It is by in large all of these things, and more.

The point of consideration I wish to make with John Beckett’s article is that he appears to address the idea of “the Sacred” in a context of its ultimate manifestation; that which is Sacred is rare, possessing an ultimately identifying uniqueness or essential differentiation between that which is often experienced, and which is less so.  At its core, this is an extension of the Sacred-Profane dichotomy, to be sure.  But I feel this places a great deal of weight on the external world beyond the human sphere, and our place within it.

Specifically, he writes, “If you want things made of wood (like houses) trees must be cut.”

The implication here being that that which is Nature or Natural possesses a greater inherent sacredness than our “world” of existence.

The Sacred is a feature or inherent quality of a thing, but it should also be stressed that it is a phenomenological experience as well.  Individuals and groups alike engage in this experiential phenomenology receive a contextual understanding of that which is Sacred in question.  In this manner, understanding “the Sacred” is as much a branch of cognitive psychology or cognitive anthropology as it is the theological study of religious experience and manifestation.  

This is not to say that “the Sacred” is a manifestation of the human psyche – on the contrary, I firmly position that it is not.  The Sacred is quite simply above all else a quality of existence which is conferred through the manifestation of the numinous, the divine.  This leads to an experiential event for the practitioner, what is largely considered to be a hierophany or hierophanic event.  We often consider the entire continuum of that which is divine – the spirits of the place, the divine dead, family, tutelary, and national gods, etc. to be “sacred”.  In this case, it is perhaps more appropriate to say that their divinity is what confers the quality of sacredness into our world, utilizing whichever chosen form as a vehicle for their manifestation.

In this way we can see how both a natural sanctuary (e.g., John Beckett’s “Nature”) and the edifice of a civilization-wrought structure can both be “sacred”.

The Sacred is intimately predicated on the manifestation of the numinous.  But that manifestation does not necessarily change the object’s essence, or understanding in the wider world.  A manifestation of the Sacred has the potential to make any object or location “something else”, entering a liminal existence in which hierophany is more likely.  Importantly, it also remains itself.  It is a state of intention between independent divinity and the reception or perception of that status by the practitioner.

Eliade wrote: “By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in the surrounding cosmic milieu.  A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones.  But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality.

Sacrality is thus apprehended by one group in particular, with familiarity with one set of experiences, and not at all by another who may be observing the same phenomenon (or, to them, the lack thereof).  

This reception/perception and engagement with the religious cosmological paradigm of the Sacred is key, because it is what ultimately enables interpretation of the Sacred element.  A miracle or hierophanic event is straightforward only to those who are prepared for it, regardless of that preparation being training or experience.  For these individuals, the event is spiritual and sacred; for everyone else a miracle is invisible and concealed within the profane world and the mundane objects which constitute it.  Because religion is an infinitely subjective event, every aspect of that enactment reflects the Sacred – rites, myths, and the very Gods themselves.

The assumption that the Sacred exists purely within the realm of human cognition is categorically untrue.  Recognition of the mechanics behind the interpretation, manifestation, and experience of the Sacred does not diminish its existence, nor does it diminish the roles that it may play within human religious behavior.  Reductive, scientistic approaches to conflating the “real” or “true” with only that which is empirically verifiable is a narrow philosophical position.  Doing so is unacceptable in the earnest, respectful discussion between practitioners.

Employing the Sacred through its symbols, myths, religious rites, locations, etc., encourages alternate variations of the various modalities consisting of what is “real”.  This allows us to engage in the manifestation of cosmological reality through varied, interconnected ways.  Its meaning resides within the mind.  However, in keeping within the paradigm established by Mircea Eliade, from whom the Sacred-Profane dichotomy arises, the Sacred is not a creation of that same mind.

Because the implication of religious symbols, customs, and interactions within a ritualistic context is not a universal constant, we must be wary of pigeonholing such a varied and nuanced concept as encompasses the Sacred in a Pagan context.  To directly comment on John Beckett’s quoted sentence, a sacred tree loses its sacredness when it no longer functions as a representative manifestation of the divine numinous, not simply because it was removed from its context.

As an example, a tree which is utilized as a central post in a communal hall functions as an imago mundi, a sacred representation and image of the Center of the Universe, and reflects the very closest point in spatial geography which humanity can be to the divine.  It reflects the axis mundi of the cosmological paradigm of the practitioner.  Likewise, lumber taken in order to construct a home and hearth is the facilitator of the hearth cult and wider domestic practice, and in that context functions both as an imago mundi as well as providing the location for the intimate and private manifestation of the divine.

The sacredness of the location is not necessarily due to to the quality of existence of the tree, but due to the numinous manifestation of the divine within, in that religion’s context.  The perspective provided in Beckett’s article appears to place the intrinsic value of the Sacred on the form it takes to the perceptive practitioner.  It could well be that the distillation of such a conversation was outside the scope of his writing, and he was speaking to the implicit assumption within much of Paganism that all land is sacred.

Ritual acts as a transformative, transmutative process by which something can be removed from our Profane space and engaged with in a sacral context.  Ritual provides the ability for the creation of the conditions required for the Sacred to be, and for the numinous to manifest.  The construction of a home, the ritual of creation mimicking the ritualistic creation of the world, generates the conditions which place it beyond the Profane world, and the maintenance of that Sacred enclosure encourages interaction with divinity, just as much as a natural site claimed by the divine or similarly untouched location in Nature.

I agree with John Beckett that “not all land is sacred”.  Locations are not, places get polluted which drive away the numinous, and these regions simply do not find themselves to be conducive to hierophany.  But, like the very religions that we find ourselves practicing, there exists a kernel of ordinary in the extraordinary, which has no bearing on the manifestation of divinity.

 


Sources Cited:

John Beckett, “It Ain’t Necessarily So: Five Falsehoods in the Pagan Community”, Under the Ancient Oaks, October 17, 2017, accessed October 19, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2017/10/aint-necessarily-five-falsehoods-pagan-community.html

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask, Harvest, Brace & World, Inc: New York, 1987.

Bryan S. Rennie, “Mircea Eliade and the Perception of the Sacred and Profane: Intention, Reduction, and Cognitive Theory” in The Finnish Society for the Study of Religion, Temenos Vol. 43, No. 1 (2007), 73-98.

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Frēosceatt Hæþendom and þe Frīfolc

•September 4, 2017 • 8 Comments

In the past I have written about my “hearth”, which is both my residence and the spatial focus of the practice of my domestic religion.  As my attention turns more to the development of a comprehensive consideration of what domestic religion consists of – what this practice can be in a contemporaneous Heathen context – I have taken stock of the world of Heathenry as it presently exists around me and I have found it regretfully wanting.  

This is not to say that I am at all an advocate for the deconstruction of attempts to craft public or communal religion.  I am not; I cannot more clearly state this.  I believe communal religion to be a natural and important facet of exoteric polytheistic religion.  I operate within the Heathen worldview of concentric obligations of duty and reciprocity and I do not, nor could I not, exclude those around me from the importance of this cycle or the fundamental human need of group experience.  All these create an intrinsic communal aspect to religious identity.  

But it is not one that is performing particularly well, right now.

Nor, I must stress, am I suggesting that Heathens focusing on community otherwise do not have household practice.

Heathenry has many present theological and philosophical deficiencies – whether that is due to the fear of a more concerted effort at contemporary development or an inability to engage in that development is not known to me.  Paramount of this, in my view, is that it is lacking in the development and establishment of a cohesive, fundamental, understanding of domestic religion within a Heathen-centric worldview.  This sphere of the religion is one that is little talked about, yet regularly questioned by new practitioners.

Within Heathenry, domestic religion is of secondary importance to that of the communal, group, religion.  It is most often characterized as a type of “solitary worship”, intrinsically linking it to prejudices associated with individual movements (Wicca, itself steeped in a system of group-based, initiatory-based organizations).  “Proper” Heathen practice is predicated by one’s value to the whole of the group, which necessarily takes precedence.  In this discussion, it is common to see a “go and do” attitude asserting itself regarding a dearth of local groups, that one should build it (anything) and they (anyone) will come, and all will be right in the world.  

When those discussions fail, hearth practice is portrayed as “inviolate”, something which cannot rightly be discussed in the public or advanced upon, because it is portrayed as supremely personalized, or so mutable that it would be ineffectual to even try to discuss it with any real purpose.

The fundamental flaws in this mentality should be readily apparent:

  1. Characterizing domestic religion as “solitary worship” redirects the attentions of neophyte practitioners and interested persons away from the foundational aspects of exoteric polytheistic religion, which are historically predicated on home worship.  The communal religions of the Indo-Europeans, broadly, were reflections of the practices in the home.
  2. Pressuring people to feel required to join a group at any cost ultimately leads to disenfranchisement, particularly if economic, practical, or ideological concerns prevent them from taking part.
  3. Pressuring seekers to take a leadership role in the organization of distinct personalities, when they themselves may not have any capability or background to do so, sets up an unfair burden these people.
  4. Positioning hearthcult as “too private” simply removes it from the realm of discussion.  It is often explained away as such in order to avoid commentary.

The theological image of contemporary Heathenry has been crafted thus: Heathenry as a religion is communal, and communal intercessors are seemingly required in order to directly deal and entreat with the deities on the behalf of a group, whether it be a “tribe”, or a “kindred”, or any-other Heathen organization so called.  “Solitary” practice of any form is that which lacks a group, which Heathenry does not support and, at any rate, private practice is just that – private.  

While a casual survey of history will show that there were indeed priests who served the public interest across a variety of cultures, it will also show that they were by and large not a specialized or vocational class of people, but one of appointment for a task.  It is likewise true that not everyone served as a priest.  But, even if we were to employ Dumezil’s fallacious tripartite hypothesis, which would separate Indo-European culture into three classes of professions, we see that there were often religious roles undertaken by those who would today be called “laymen”.  

This is because exoteric polytheistic identity is intrinsically linked and indebted to the identity of the home.  Religious developments in Indo-European descended polytheistic societies were generally (although not always) pioneered in that sphere.  The home provides a foundation to the practice of the community, used as a template and model, and provides the lifeblood to these aspects of religious enactments.  

Contemporary Heathenry’s avoidance of the discussion and development of this facet of practice is tantamount to cutting off one’s legs before running a marathon.  And, what is worse, it is treated as business as usual.  This is something that I have found to be unacceptable.

Which, ponderously, brings me to the topic of the title of this post.

I firmly believe that the foundation to a healthy polytheistic identity begins, like so many other things, in the home and that the efforts of Heathenry to expand upon communal organizations at the expense of this discussion only does near-irrevocable harm to the health and wellbeing of the religion as a cohesive movement.

If the current trend of Heathenry places an unrealistic weight on being part of a “group” or “community”, there will be a number of disenfranchised proto-/would-be-/Heathens that will simply not pursue the religion.  The sense of rightful belonging is an important one for the continued interaction in the community writ large.  As someone who has long been out-of-step with concepts like tribalism or group identity, I can sympathise with the desire to simply not be engaged.  Especially when the physical community is lacking or disreputable.

Those that remain but struggle through without a framework or guideline towards concepts like proper action (the ultimate foundation of Orthopraxis and Ritualism) can develop improper or dangerous practices which ultimately harm them, lead to improper or impious habits (yes, we have those), and fail to understand foundational works of cosmology, gifting, et al.  It takes longer to correct bad habits than it would have been to develop correct ones from the beginning.

In order for Heathenry to thrive and not be splintered through group dissolution or pointless political infighting, a more concerted effort at cultivating household polytheistic practice must be made.  It needs to shed the prejudices it has with individuals who cannot (or will not) engage with a wider community, and divest itself of the baggage that it has in regards to these concepts of “solitary” or “eclectic” practices which are a holdover from the split of Asatru with Wicca.

The defenses against independent private practice on the domestic level are flimsy, buttressed by assumptions instead of concrete fact.  Assumptions supported largely by a lack of evidence, not an evidence of any kind of identifiable absence.  Crafting a practicing religious identity on such a fallacy is remarkably shortsighted.

Nothing is gained in ignoring household practice, or avoiding the development of a system of such things.  While there are those who would prefer these developments to naturally and organically happen, without a bit of a push there is nothing to start that genesis.  Emphasizing and attempting to do this definition helps establish a baseline orthopraxic religion which serves as a foundation.  Orthopraxy does not mean “whatever practice appeals to us”, but instead intimates some kind of understanding of basic religious culture that is accepted.

Having resources available, having discussions that are not shut down, and having examples of proper ritual action in the home and how one can apply their Heathenry in these household/ancestral/divine methods of localized worship translates into less time overall which is spent “reinventing the wheel”, so to speak.  Part of my biggest gripe with Heathenry is that we’ve been stuck, consistently, in the “beginning studies” part of it, the “101”-level.  We exist with a consistent rehashing of introductory materials, because they are more easily comoodified or (perhaps) they are simply less known because of the paucity of discussion and widespread knowledge of them.  In discussing these topics, and the household worship  of deities that would otherwise be portrayed as uncaring to that level of society, we can hopefully advance the dialogue of Heathenry.

We can hopefully provide more time to developing, more energy to growth, with less time being spent on being shut down, or ignored, or silenced.  

Identifying with Frēosceatt Hæþendom (that is Freehold Heathendom, or Heathenry because -ry/-ery as a suffix isn’t Old English), is my suggestion of rectifying this deficiency in contemporary Heathen practice, the recognition that there is another facet to Heathen practice that exists beneath and around the group dynamic.  Independent Heathen households, or otherwise Heathens in groups that are willing to explore and discuss their own household practice for the intelligent consumption by others, in order to have a respectful dialogue about their practices and how they develop in their local environments.  I truly believe this will only serve to strengthen communal Heathenry – after all, the tribalistic societies which many groups attempt to emulate are logically consisting of households that share common location, practice, and customs that are drawn together for survival and mutual benefit.

But instead of worrying about a communal structure to Heathenry right out of the gate, oftentimes building it with the assumption that people will come or otherwise spending time lamenting the lack of public edifices of religion, we instead could redirect some attention to developing a concrete, workable, system of belief, practice, and philosophy which literally exists wherever the practitioner happens to reside.  A religious practice that not only can be picked up by anyone interested and dedicated, but can survive conflicts of personality, dissolutions of wider group initiatives, transmitted more easily through exposure and example, and which above-all recognizes the sacrality and religious meaning in the ordinary.

I have spent two years playing around with this idea through my writings, in discussion within internet groups groups, working on the Larhus Fyrnsida, and consulting my colleague Wodgar.  He and I have seen an explosion of interest in Heathenry by those who would otherwise not be able to take part in communal organization, who are able to engage in their ancestral and household cults in a practical, contemporary way through a Germanic worldview.  Instead of telling them to find groups, instead of simply providing a list of books for them to struggle through, we’ve had some success at providing our developments as a springboard for other people to run with.

It is particularly gratifying to know that a number of people have been touched by the concept, and it is a circle which is ever widening.

I am not the first to employ the term “freehold Heathen” to reference myself, and I know this for a fact.  But I do believe that the actual effort at establishing an understood household practice is something that hasn’t been tried with a purpose, yet.  Published books tend to treat their Heathen practice as an ancillary arm of community structure, fail to discuss concepts like the sacred space of the home or navigating the vagaries of modern households versus different ones, or the intersection of cosmological worldview in the household structure.  Instead they, unsurprisingly, favor community-oriented rites (blots, symbels, etc.), thews, and other structures of larger-than-household-concern.

I understand the disillusionment with being treated as a lesser voice because I’m not part of some group, some organization which only meets one or two times a year and draws people from outside a reasonable range of expected assistance in the case of an emergency.  I have been called “Solitary” and that I “cannot be Heathen” because of it, because I haven’t found a “group” of strangers that I want to commingle my luck with and engage with.  I’ve seen people simply brushed to the side for asking questions, told to find other people, on forums and community sites that are dedicated to discussion.  I’ve been called “eclectic” for having a religious practice which is not apparently in-line with what is considered accepted “Heathen practice”, subject to a system of goal-posts which consistently move as benefitting the argument at hand – arguments which always flew counter to the understanding of polytheism as a religious view.

I do not accept that one has to be part of a “group” in order to be Heathen.  Nor do I believe that any one Heathen worshiping alone is solitary – for they maintain a line of practice which deals with their ancestral gods as the head of their household.  And while I do not have any measure of issue with those Heathens who have found meaning or purpose in the group dynamic, or engaging in the gifting cycle of a wider group, many of us have not.  One’s worth as a Heathen isn’t affixed to the perceptions of others outside their circles.  That is the narrative of people who would position themselves as a higher authority than they otherwise fundamentally possess.  

Exoteric polytheistic religion is just that – exoteric.  This naturally positions it opposite the esoteric, the hidden or mysterious.  There are values in those practices, to be sure – witchcrafts and mystery cults and other such traditions which derive their power specifically from being aberrant, deviant, or subversive all have their places.  But the realm of the practical religion is the day-to-day, the seamless integration of one’s religiosity and their life, this is ultimately what defines exoteric practice.  

Associating individual Heathen practice with deprecated concepts like “solitary” worship, or anchoring the value of Heathenry to an external group identity and not the smallest unit of Heathen social order, only provides unnecessary roadblocks to the proliferation of Heathen religious identity.  

Part of the reason why I am writing my Hearthcult in Heathenry piece (forthcoming) is to try to do my part to advance this general understanding of in-house practice.  And I really believe that if more people were to do so, to ignore the people who would try to belittle them for consequences of geography or living situations and otherwise portray them as being unsuitable to call themselves Heathens.  And, as I have said, I am of the opinion it will only make Heathenry as a whole more stable.  

I am a Freehold Heathen, and I am a member of þe heathen Frīfolc- those Heathen practitioners who are unbeholden to anyone other than the needs of their homes, family, and ancestral and local deities.  And I, and others like me, are no less Heathen because of it.

Vita Enim Mortuorum in Memoria est Posita Vivorum

•August 6, 2017 • Leave a Comment

“The life of the dead is placed in the living.” – The Ninth Oration of M. T. Cicero against Marcus Antonius, Called Also the Ninth Philippic, 10.

As the Northern Hemisphere enters the late Summer and early Fall seasons, ancestors and ancestral holidays are on my mind, greatly.  In fact, the majority of my observed holidays have some kind of major ancestral component to them.  The “season” of such observances, which are commonly concentrated by many Pagans in the fall and winter is really the majority of the year.  While I would not say I am particularly “death obsessed”, there is a significant facet of emphasis on my ancestral dead that forms a major part of my cultic practice.

I generally refer to August 1st as the holiday of Hærfest (or Hlaftid).  It officially, and effectively, starts this lengthy season of ancestral worship for me, which will conclude in May.  With five dedicated holidays, spanning a total of at least twenty-five days in my liturgical year (excluding namedays or anniversaries of deaths), one can see how it is important to me.

Across the spectrum of Heathenry and Paganism the first harvest of the year (called Hærfest/Hlaftid/Lammas to Anglo-Saxons, or Lughnasadh to Gaelic and Wiccan traditions, or a variety of other names) focuses on the physical harvest.  It is employed and celebrated as the first of those holy days where people reap the benefits of the year, give thanks for the fertility of the land, and generally honor that which is made.  It is the culmination of a year’s efforts, and traditionally represented a bulwark against the coming Winter.  

In Fyrnsidu, we follow folkloric traditions of crafting corn dollies in order to house the spirits of the land and fertility for the Winter, and then return them in order to usher in Spring.  Even those of us who have no direct ties to the land, or who do not have ties to the agricultural cycle of the year, nevertheless reap the bounty of that which grows from it and that which the gods have gifted us.  So in the honoring of Harfæst even by urbanites we see a celebration just as worthy.  I, of course, bring this up because there has in the past been some question whether or not Pagans without ties to the agricultural cycle should venerate the harvest.

But the Harfæst that I celebrate is different.  I make an effort to include the ancestors with a greater, more prominent, role in my rites.  Alongside Ing and Beowa and the nameless spirits of growth and soil, I offer them beer and bread, sharing the wealth of the earth and underworld with them.  I make an effort to give them the due honor that is required because, though my life is my own, their actions were what lead me to that place, where I could reap such rewards.  

This is in addition to those weekly rites in which I give my ancestral beings offerings, and honor those ancestors who act as guardians and protectors of my reality.  I make observances to them, and feed them on the regular.  

I find that many Pagans have issues surrounding the concept of Ancestral worship, and there is a fundamental disconnect of purpose.  I have spent numerous hours speaking to people asking the “why” of the practice, especially those from identifiably poor or broken families.  In a sense, I tend to sympathize with them, because my relations with some of my living members are not as good as they could otherwise be.  

Ancestral cult is often considered a (if not the) defining facet of indigenous polytheistic practice, one which is largely found worldwide.  Though it arises in different contexts and invariably takes on different cultural expressions (compare Roman familial cult with Confucian filial piety), the divine nature of the ancestral being(s) is largely recognized in these native systems of practice and worship.  Stanley Stowers, in Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families describes the traditional domestic cult as being anchored in two places of extreme importance: the home and the tomb.  Both of these locations represent a spatial, physical, tie of cult and practice, establishing a location of worship and a feeling of connection of the polytheistic system they are found.  

In this instance, the anchoring of one’s private cult to the tomb (literal or figurative) encourages a continuation of identity, and blazing a connection between those what have come before with those that are now.  Knowing where one comes from enables one to better go forward, and the guidance and examples given by the honored dead, the protection and support which they can provide will ultimately see to that end  (By in large, there are exceptions, of course).

My approach to Ancestral worship threads the aforementioned concept of divine reciprocity – do ut des – with that of cosmological reality and the inclusion of the past into the present through the actions and vagaries of Wyrd and the speaking of Orlæg.

Present reality is uncertain and constantly in flux.  It is constantly affected by the actions of all things in that reality, people and gods alike, which (in part) contributes to the fluidity and uncertainty of it, and these actions are spoken and laid down in the Well of Wyrd (through the speaking of Orlæg), which gives shape to all things.  Westerners perceive reality linearly, in the manner of a past-present-future advance where things that have come before us are done and gone and have little to no effect on the present (big events in history aside), and less on the future.  The “past” of Heathens, instead, is all that had been done and completed and accomplished.  Everything else, simply, is nonpast.  

The important thing to remember in this system is that the past is ever-evolving and ever-changing based on the events which have come and are completed, and this ever-evolving, ever-changing, ever-increasing force which continues to draw into itself can and will intrude into the present time.  It effectively creates a series of circular, differentiated, realities as it progresses, an agglomeration of earlier, that provides not a static and unchanging circular repetition but a new revolution which is reminiscent and influenced by what has come before.

Some of the ancestors have completed missions and have truly entered the “past”, where others have not and their actions and obligations exist alongside us in the “nonpast”.  The concept of “fulfilling one’s Ancestral Wyrd” is not uncommon among modern Heathens, and the tying of familial luck to the actions of an ancestral being, being exacted and experienced today, is likewise a topic of discussion.  This is only one such example of what we believe to be the “past” intruding upon our modern time.

If the past is a living thing, as it is often portrayed in Germanic cosmology, then a role of the people in the nonpast is to remember it, learn from it, and codify it.  This is done through ritual and through remembrance.  For Heathens, and many other Contemporary Pagans, the passing of one from this world merely represents a transition to another, but it is the obligation of the familial priests and those who are left behind to ensure that the needs of these people are still met throughout this world.

Pagans have a statement, “What is remembered lives”.  Similarly, Cicero wrote, “Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum.”

In this system of a past that engages, exerts influence on, and is coterminous with, the ancestors are truly not “gone” from our reality like they are in the tripartite, linear system we are accustomed.  By recognizing that, feeding them, nurturing them, or propitiating them in the manners in which we are supposed to, we engage with them to receive their guidance and their protection.  They, like the Gods, have a greater perspective in ways which we cannot truly appreciate.  Until we join with the fixed past, we are shackled with a limited vision of what reality is.  

The maintenance of our relationships with our ancestral dead is of paramount importance in the reconstruction of a viable household polytheistic practice.  Forgetfulness is identified as one of the largest threats, traditionally, to this practice.

It is for this reason, and a multitude of smaller ones, that Harfæst takes its place as the beginning of a cycle of holy days revolving around the importance of the dead, and sharing what I have with them.  Because they are not gone, and continue to guide and protect me and mine, and are due the reverence and respect expected of that role.


Works Referenced:

Bauschatz, Paul.  The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

Stowers, Stanley. “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families” in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, ed. John Bodel and Saul Olyan, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Paganism as a Religion

•June 18, 2017 • 7 Comments

From the outset of my time in the public sphere, I have been against a seemingly needless division and splintering of the concept of Contemporary Paganism as a religious grouping or term.  As an example, I loathe the term “neopagan” in any of its iterations.  If one looks at the history of the word and concept of “paganism” as it has been used inside academia and outside, the term simply does not make any sense.  The traditional use of “pagan” has, since the fourth century, meant one who is a non-Christian.  This use of the term persisted throughout Christian-dominated discourse, often with strict negative connotations.  It has only been comparatively recently that there has been a push to more accurately define traditional “paganism” in the contexts of their cultures, as individual indigenous belief structures and religious enactments.

Neopagan, then, implies a “new not-Christian”.  It continues to hold back the development of an identity by dragging the concept of the “Pagan self” back into a Christian-oriented paradigm.  It effectively puts the whole of the movement (as it exists) back within the shadow of Christian-dominated ideology.  I have found that most people who profess to be Pagans cannot properly articulate what their religious practices are and defining their “religion” without inversely comparing it to Christianity.

Ask someone to describe part of their religion and they may say “We do not believe in Original Sin”, instead of describing their theology.

Is it because they figure that framing their explanation within a Christian context helps to inform whomever they are talking to?  Or is it because they do not know how to articulate their theology without doing such?  I believe it is more the latter.  This is obviously problematic for the creation of a healthy self-image.

So because I have detested the needless division of “Paganism”, I followed a system of treating that word as a proper noun – making a clear distinction between traditional (or “academic”) paganism and Paganism.  To further drive home the fact that this religious grouping is very much a new religious movement, I have followed a handful of scholars and writers int he use of “Contemporary Paganism” as a qualifier.  It makes a bit more sense than “neopagan”, despite being a bit more clunky to write.

But it’s becoming clear to me – perhaps finally – that this terminological use is insufficient due to the varying philosophies, theologies, and agendas that are often at odds within the public fora of Contemporary Paganism.  Of particular note and interest is the shifting and moving definitions (and, in some cases, goalposts) of what constitutes a “religion”.  This is often done in order to accommodate some of these philosophical and theological outlooks (and, I find, necessarily edge others out).  

So it is perhaps important that we define what “religion” is, and how it should be approached in the discussion of the contemporary iteration of Paganism as a new religious movement.  And, above all, whether Paganism qualifies.

We shall be going back to basics, as it were.

Religion, on Wiktionary, is defined as:

  • (uncountable) The belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.
  • (countable) A particular system of faith and worship.
  • (uncountable) The way of life committed to by monks and nuns.
  • (countable) Any practice to which someone or some group is seriously devoted.
  • (uncountable, obsolete) Faithfulness to a given principle; conscientiousness. [16th-17th c]

“Religion” in colloquial parlance has evolved from describing a system of belief and worship to anything which one might find a zealous adherence to – sports teams, political affiliation, other ideologies.

So the dictionary definition is particularly unhelpful, if anything can be considered a “religion” if there’s enough conviction.  I find that it also helps to look at the various definitions from disciplines that actually study the emergence of religion as a human institution.

The anthropological definition, in some quality, of religion is: a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to a supernatural power.

In sociology, Durkheim described religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

A further breakdown shows a distinct difference in the function and role of religion in society.

Further, we can see various definitions in some of the descriptions of religions across other multiple disciplines (already featured on this blog but reproduced here):

“Religion is ‘a verbal and nonverbal structure of interactions with superhuman being(s).” – Hans Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion.

“[Religion is] a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules, and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.” – Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

“All religions follow the same structural contours.  They invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneliness, calamity, and death.  They have malevolent and predatory deities, as well as many benevolent and protective ones.” – Scott Atran, “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape”, in Handbook of Cultural Psychology.

It is held, with fair frequency, that the overwhelming definition of a “religion” is a series or grouping of rites, practices, and beliefs which concern themselves with both human society and the “intersection of” or “concern with” a supernatural power.

There will be disputes to any of these definitions, of course.  Durkheim also said that religion can appear and change due to the needs of society and the culture in question – which necessarily means that the concept is not as static as some people would otherwise like.

But it also needs to be remembered that “religion” as a term is definitely influenced by our own cultural contexts, with a nuanced history of being informed by Christian and Romanticist concepts as to what constitutes “real” or “valid” religion.  This is the case in various scholastic circles predating the mid-20th century.  These definitions come in and out of vogue, as with many things in the course of human events and, despite the foundational quality to religion as a feature of society, this creates these shifting opinions as to the essential nature of religion.  

All too frequently these attempts to describe “religion” are monothetic when it is perhaps best described as a polythetic practice.  That is, the act and description of religion cannot necessarily be reduced down to a single basic idea or principle, often transcending ontological or epistemological concerns.

More simply put: religion cannot be properly described according solely to a checklist of attributes.

Stanley K. Stowers has a lengthy description of what he considers the polythetic aspects of a definition of “religion”, as presented in his paper “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families“ and published in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity.  

He defines religion on page 11 as “often the linked and combined practices (i.e., doings and saying) of particular human populations (e.g., imagined as cultures, societies, ethnicities, groups, global movements) that involve the imagined participation of gods or other normally non-observable beings in those practices and social formations, and that shade into many kinds of anthropomorphizing interpretations of the world. Religion is the unfolding activity (including thinking and believing) involving those practices that postulate participation with and make reference to gods, normally non-observable beings and anthropomorphizing interpretations of the world.”

One of the characteristic and most inherent flaws in the discussion of religion, either in the discussion within the contemporaneous expression of Paganism or other discussions of historic incidences within the wider academic community, is that any discussion treats these myriad practices as autonomous from the human condition of society and culture.

“Religion is a class of practices that involve a broader, species-wide cognitive propensity.”, Stowers describes.  

There are no clear boundaries at the margins for what is or is not “religious”, or what constitutes a “religion”.  This is especially true when one speaks to the nature of folk religion, which much of Contemporary Paganism follows.  These religious beliefs can splinter off and justifiably be considered within the realms of philosophy, “folk science”, psychology, mythology, etc.  

These disciplines all constitute what a religion is, which can’t be reduced down easily (if at all).

This also ties neatly into my partial discussion about how the definition of “secular” space is inherently a triumph of hegemonic monotheism and that those Western polytheists that don’t see a distinction in the spheres of secular and religious.

What is clearest is that we can see there is no working definition of “religion” that is going to satisfy everyone within the conversation.  Each individual is going to have their own perceptions based on their practice, traditions, academic backgrounds, and experiences if at all applicable.  Any quality of the definition of the word “religion” is going to be, at most, “not bad”.  Let alone “good” or “perfect”.

If we approach religion as a polythetic experience, a spectrum of interrelated practices, beliefs, and systems which cannot necessarily be reduced down to a minimum essentialistic nature, then we have to accept that there is never going to be a perfect definition.  It is the unicorn of religious studies.

Those definitions which I employ above are based on three or four disciplines of academia, all of which concern themselves with social science (and thus, empiricism).  They are not perfect, and they do not cover all facets of religious definition, but if we treat the term “supernatural” (itself problematic) not necessarily as concerning the worship of “gods” but instead concerning with greater-than-human powers, then we see the number of recognized religions which would be edged out by definition are few in number.

Even Jainism, the posterchild example in the West of a “non-theistic religion”, recognizes and engages with a variety of supernatural beings, depending on the philosophical school.

There’s also something to be said about the fetishization by the West of Eastern religions for political purposes or other agendas.

How does this discussion of the definition of religion tie in with the contemporary incidence of Paganism?  Paganism is a similarly difficult concept to articulate properly.  Its traditional monothetic definition (a “nature-based” fertility religion) has fallen out of favor for a polythetic definition (a spectrum of religious identities which are likewise “not bad” in definition).  

Contemporary Paganism consists of both “true” new religious movements (Druidism/Druidry, Wicca/British Traditional Witchcraft, etc.) and traditionalist pagan revivals or restorations (reconstructionist/revivalist polytheistic traditions like Heathenry or the Religio Romana, etc.).  On paper, they do not seem to have much in common, yet are nevertheless grouped under the term of Contemporary Paganism.

A closer examination of the traditional understanding of “pagan” (excluding the non-Christian qualifier) religions would show that they are not as dissimilar in nature as they first appear.  In his book Pagan Theology, Michael York attempts to describe some of the qualities which these traditional pre-Christian pagan practices included.  These are

  1. A number of male and female deities.
  2. Magical practice.
  3. Emphasis on ritual efficacy.
  4. Corpospirituality.
  5. An understanding of gods and humans as codependent and related.

There are others, of course.  This list is neither comprehensive, nor wholly indicative.  But it is a useful baseline in comparing “Pagan” religions with other world religions.  Though Michael York’s writing treats this list as a historic incidence, I find that much of Contemporary Paganism features these.  What we see here is that these religious qualities largely persist across both of the spectrums of Contemporary Paganism.  That is, they are features in some way in the “New Religions” and the “Revived Religions”.  I will attempt to describe.  

In the case of these traditions, divinity is directly experienced and intertwined with the visible and material world.  This is true of a polytheistic revivalist, a dualistic Wiccan, or a panentheistic druid or a vaguely Emersonian naturalist.  The wills of these religions do not seek to transcend the world around them and recognize that we are only a tiny part of a larger whole.  Where they differ is in their concern for the recognition of the numinous divine.  This is the nature of corpo-spirituality.  It does not matter if divinity is a staunch multiplicity, a theological duality, or a distant universality of all (or most things).  It is immanent and inherent in the world.

Amusingly, this extends towards a predisposition to classical concepts of “idolatry”, featuring the sacredness of place and thing in a way which inherently makes Christianity uncomfortable.

Paganism is generally said, and commonly argued, to be concerned with orthopraxy over orthodoxy, that there is more emphasis on the proper action instead of proper belief.  I would perhaps make the argument that it is a blend of ritualism and orthopraxis instead.  Ritual efficacy and the role of custom, in both life and ritual, in the proper enactment of religious expression is seen.  What we cannot say is that belief is unimportant to any kind of theism.  It is simply that the adjudication of orthodoxy is less of a concern.

One must understand the theory (belief) to put it into action (praxis).

At first glance, York’s inclusion of “magical practice” as a qualifier for pre-Christian pagan religions (and thus, something that Contemporary Paganism is indebted to) might appear to be out of place, particularly with some religious philosophies opposed to the idea of “magic”.  Modern concepts of “magic” are conflated with the ceremonial magic of Wicca and British Traditional Witchcraft, inherited from the esotericist orders of the late Victorian era.  It is to be remembered, however, that “magical practice” in the context of some of these traditions include various operations of sacrifice, bribery, “low magic” (cunningcraft), and other similar items.  Even prayer, with its formulaic and intentional purpose, can be argued as a magical process.

I do find the term “deity” and “gods” to be particularly loaded, and one of my concerns with York’s list of these traditional qualities are the use of these terms.  There is an unfortunate baggage which arises from the use of these words, constituting an unnecessary predisposition towards the concept of the “big gods” – that the term “god” must be a figure of renown as Jupiter or Odin.  The study of traditional pagan cultures would show that the terms “deity” and “god” can include a plethora of varying divine figures including, but necessarily limited to, deified ancestral figures, nonspecific local spirits, tutelary beings of limited scope, and those traditional divine figures of renown and ethno-cultural importance.

This baggage is paramount in some modern restorations – notably Heathenry – who view these beings through an unnecessary lens of “power” or hierarchy, limiting the fundamental understanding of the importance of the “small gods”.  The theological language of modern Paganism is still very much couched within a Christo-centric world, and care should be made in light of that. The theological understanding of these beings in antiquity was nuanced, but few were viewed as “lesser” which the modern hierarchy would like to portray.  They simply held different roles and spheres of influence.

York’s biggest distinction in the incidence of Contemporary Paganism with traditional pre-Christian paganism (classified by him as neopagan, geopagan, and recopagan, all terms which I consider problematic) is the lack of emphasis on shrine and temple culture that the latter had promulgated.  What I believe he is referencing is more the establishment of a formalized priesthood, because the concept of the sacredness of space and delineation of sacred and profane is largely unchanged across the Paganisms.  The age of York’s book is apparent, given his articulation that “contemporary neopagans” do not exhibit a devotional quality before altars.

An inherent issue in hiving off the traditional, Christo-centric definition of “pagan” from the concept of Contemporary Paganism is what exactly the term incompasses.  As we’ve seen above, the concept of Paganism as a religion largely holds true throughout the contemporary incidence of it.  But so too do many other worldwide cultures.  In this way, “paganism” as a concept is very much like the usage of “shamanism”: it unhelpfully describes a collection of attitudes and folk practices, some of which can span the globe.  

This, of course, leads to a handful of problems:

  1. It implies that these practices are “the same”, across cultures, which lessens the overall impact each might have in their respective group.  
  2. This causes a reduction of agency of the individual religious traditions, and tries to force them into a Christian-themed paradigm.  
  3. It encourages a sometimes deleterious concept of “mutual ownership”, leading to negative practices of cultural appropriation.

All three of these issues are problematic in their own way, although one and two are intrinsically linked together.  Calling a tradition like African Tribal/Diasporic Religion (ATR/ADR), Shinto, or Hindusim (among others) “pagan” tends to receive negative responses, because of the implication that these cultures are “outsiders” in their own cultural and social context.  It diminishes their rich history, their own traditions, and the experiences of their religious developments.  Jordan Paper’s book The Deities are Many discusses this a bit, and the (then) growing trend of the recognition of indigenous practices in their own contexts.

The third point is one that is particularly important to me, as someone who identifies as a Contemporary Pagan.  The popular expression of Paganism when it became semi-”mainstream” in the 1990s often relied on appropriating concepts from other religions in order to fill gaps in practice or belief, or because it interested the practitioner, or any number of reasons.  The closeness at the time between Paganism and the New Age movement encouraged a brand of eclecticism (used here not as a pejorative) and cherry picking which was ultimately harmful to many of the cultures which were being drawn from.

We see this attitude replicated again and again, and one of the most recent and extreme examples I can think of came from the recent struggle at Standing Rock and the actions of some of the “allies” there (Part 1, Part 2).  While we’re not sure that these women were “Pagan”, this attitude is all too frequent.  The discussion of this practice merits its own entry.

But the value in narrower definitions, as tools to generate a more thorough identity should be shown.  A group with a watery and ill-defined identity will not have a firm foundation in order to thrive – as a comparison, the Unitarian Universalist membership and reenrollment have been trending downward every year since 2008.

One of the methods I employ in the definition of “Contemporary Paganism” as a distinct religious grouping is to utilize a firm cultural boundary, and I extend it to the religions which are either largely descended from (revived) or inspired by the folk religions of both the European-Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultural basins.  This positions Contemporary Paganism as a purely Western religious expression, recognizing and advocating for a distinct identity which can be erected, and reasonably encompasses the history of “the West” (Pre-Classical and Classical antiquity), while at the same time including new religious movements that are inspired by that expression.  

Of course, not everyone will agree.  But I find that the definition, again, is “not bad”.  And, what’s more, it’s workable.  

By studying these new religious movements and the revived traditionalist religions of Contemporary Paganism, we see that Paganism aligns with the themes and essential concepts of religion.  Its emphasis on supernatural/greater-than-human interaction, the definition of a continuum of sacredness and delineation of profanity, and an inherently foundational concept of interrelated and codependent reciprocity all assist in positioning Contemporary Paganism as a religio-spiritual institution.  Where these Pagan religions differ are in the emphasis placed upon these facets.

Like Stowers said in the quote previously shared, “religion” is a problematic term, with numerous pitfalls and qualities that are inextricably linked.  It ultimately encompasses, not excludes, a diversity of discipline and opinion, which form the totality of its expression within a culture.  Paganism, as a contemporary religious grouping, is likewise problematic and encompasses disciplines as theology, philosophy, and folk psychology, which all inform its existence.  In comparing modern iterations of Pagan religiosity with traditional concepts of pre-Christian pagan religion, we see that it is a series of orthopraxic and ritualistic lineages within what amounts to a truly multi-faith milieu.

When approaching Contemporary Paganism and contrasting it to traditional concepts of “pagan religiosity”, we’re struck with the growing development that within Contemporary Paganism of two distinct interpretations.  The first is to treat Paganism, as I have done here, as a religio-spiritual edifice.  The second is to treat Paganism in the vein reminiscent of Loyal Rue and Ursula Goodenough and approach it, instead, as an “attitude”.

 


Works Referenced

Atran, Scott. “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape: An Evolutionary

Perspective,” in Handbook of Cultural Psychology, edited by Shinobu Kitayama and Dov Cohen, pgs 417-453. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Goodenough, Ursula. “Religious Naturalism and naturalizing morality”, Zygon no: 38. 2003: 101-109.

Penner, Hans.  Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1983.

Paper, Jordan.  The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Rue, Loyal. Nature is Enough. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Stowers, Stanley K.  “Theorizing the Religion of Ancient Households and Families“ in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity, edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan.  Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press 2003.

On Favorites

•June 14, 2017 • 3 Comments

“<X> is my favorite deity!”, an anonymous Pagan scrawls on the internet.

This has always struck me as an odd statement.  I understand where it is coming from, in the same vein as “<Name> is my favorite person”.  We play favorites as social animals, and it’s been something that’s been criticized for a long time.  It’s in the Bible even – well, one of them (The Message).  No, seriously.  Check out Proverbs 28:21-22.  It’s there.

If one were to ask me which one of the pets I have known, or friends I have known, were my absolute favorite, I wouldn’t be able to answer.  I’m a person who tries to approach people on their own merits.  The people I am friendly with are not better than the other – they have different strengths and weaknesses.  To me, reducing them down to “favorites” creates an unnecessary bias towards them, in which one is necessarily diminished compared to the other.  The same thing goes with living beings – each one is different.  Each one has its own unique personality.

I feel the same way about the deities.

Sure, there are deities which we approach with more familiarity (for lack of a better word).  Individual beings which we’ve entered a more intimate gifting cycle with, perhaps a formal relationship of patronage and obligation, or beings which have more interest in us as individuals.  We have more in common with some of them, less with others.

But favorite?

I have a favorite color.  I have a favorite food.  A favorite smell.  A favorite place, a favorite time period, a favorite architectural style, a favorite band, and a favorite song.  I favor a side, a firearm, a writing or artistic medium, a type of beer, and a hundred other things which inform my tastes.

Like Mary Martin said: these are a few of my favorite things.

This way of treating deities – like treating people – is, to me, like reducing them down to these things.  While it isn’t intentional, it feels like they’ve less agency and are somehow reduced to mere qualities that aren’t necessarily experienced in reality.  Sometimes it comes across as finding favoritism with the idea of a deity, instead of the deity itself.  What they can do for us, or what qualities they have on paper which we find preferable.

I know that the definition of “favor” isn’t negative in its initial definition.  But in modernity favoritism has enough of a negative connotation that I’d avoid falling into that mindset. A parent showing a son more favoritism than the other is considered negative.  A boss showing favoritism to an employee is considered unethical at best, and illegal in some spheres.  Family showing preference to family in a professional or political setting is nepotism and is largely considered undesirable.

Showing favor to someone implies an unequal power dynamic.  And I don’t profess to hold that level of influence with the gods.  We enter into a mutually sustainable relationship with them, except in very rare circumstances.  There are deities that will hold to more unfavorable (ha!) relationships.  They are the ones in charge of the dynamic, here after all.  

At least as far as I see it.

There are beings that I like, just like there are people who I like.  There are some who I am afraid of (the overwhelming majority of greater-than-people, to be honest, but I digress).  There are some who I routinely offer to on a week-to-week basis (tutelary deities, ancestral deities, a few big name ones with outstanding obligations), and some I will not unless absolutely necessary.  There might even be some that I dislike.

But I’m not sure I could say that I favor any, over another.

However, I just got off an eleven hour shift at the office.  So I’m not entirely sure I’m making much sense.  But.  I’m going to throw it up here, anyway.

The Problem of Apples, Pt. IV: The Problem of Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 6 Comments

Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

The sum of this entire discussion is what amounts to the “Problem of Apples” – the problem of a broadly reductionistic association between deities of wildly different spheres of cultural and religious matters and meanings.  Though many polytheistic restorations and revivals make similar claims in regards to the reduction of divinity, Heathenry appears to be unique in the frequency with which it is engaged.  In some cases, it appears to be the passive reaction to the concept of pluralistic divinity.  It is an act of modern convenience and an anachronistic prevalence that serves little apparent purpose in light of the discrepancies of etymology, iconography, and other socio-cultural contexts.  As has been shown, all of these elements are broadly positioned by their role in the religious and social culture, and all inform the religious hypotheses and experiences of their individual systems.

In the case of the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn, we see dissimilar deities inorganically melded together for little apparent purpose.

Within contemporary Western polytheism there is much to-do that is made about the implications of negative appropriation and appropriative acts, crafting a double standard in terms of reception towards the inclusion of divinity.  It appears that these appropriative actions which are performed within something like the Heathen cultural group – within the wider Germanic foundational culture – are not critiqued in any meaningful way as being inherently deleterious to identity.  This paper has endeavored to show that care must necessarily be taken in the forced association of deities with such vastly different scopes and roles.

Traditional indigenous European polytheism, which ultimately anchors these Western restorations, was a highly mutable concept of divinity; deities would go through several localizations, redefinitions, and other gradual changes.  This culture was never static, as should be expected within any meaningful living system.  Appropriations were common between different cultural groups – various cults made their way around the Mediterranean basin through conquest and trade.  This is easily seen throughout the spectrum of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian religions when new aspects of divinity were codified, as well as the dissolution of older concepts that had once circled around the identity of the god.  These all melded their divinity in inherently different ways.

In some cases this metamorphosis was encouraged by new aspects of deification entering the (particularly local) mythology of the individual deity.  Other deities experienced the removal or the loss of their functional foci, which inherently altered the understanding of the deity in question.  Syncretism, the act in which deities were correlated and commingled within an alternative cultural paradigm, is an almost inherent part of polytheistic identity and absolutely happened within these traditional cultures.  Dissolution, likewise, was not uncommon.

We can see this metamorphosis even within the Germanic system, despite the paucity of information that we have.  The recognition of two deities within the Norse polytheistic paradigm, that of Frigg and Freyja, is an example of this.  Earlier Germanic peoples, it is commonly argued, understood the role of the singular divinity (originating in the Proto-Germanic *Frijjō).  Through the dissolution of the functional foci and the change, this unity was dispersed between two Nordic deities.

Within the polytheistic system, these are all valid interpretations and experiences within the realm of hierophany and the experience of the numinous.

The theology of syncretic belief is, however, deeply nuanced and extends beyond simple equation of deities and their equivalencies (or not) within their culture.  It encompasses a detailed understanding of divinity that is unfamiliar to many modern polytheists, either through their inculcation from other belief systems or due to a lack of resources for more accurate study.  The case of the conflation of Ēastre and Iðunn serves no apparent syncretic purposes in a religious culture.  It was born not from an organic or identified need, but an easily understood comparison and appropriation between deities because of a fundamental deficiency in Heathen understanding of polytheistic theology.  

It is this deficiency which should be endeavored to be recognized.

An important point to consider is the overall status of Western polytheism in its present state as an organized attempt at restoration.  As decentralized as it is, it still maintains an identity of necessity as a minority religious culture beneath a more domineering paradigm.  The comparatively young age of these restored/reinterpreted traditions necessitate care in divine appropriation, and the role of divinity within the various expressions of polytheistic theology should be considered in light of this.  While the modern trend of Globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas has fundamentally altered the manner in which information is disseminated and adopted – creating a culture almost reminiscent of traditional cosmopolitan ethos that support the commingling of ideas – it has opened up ever-greater risks for the erasure of tradition.

There was an implicit understanding of the essential nature of the divine that amounted to a wholesale cultural acceptance that pervaded every layer of society that was so concerned.  This understanding extended to those instances of syncretic development and tendencies towards religious amalgamation.  This enabled syncretic deities to exist alongside the common conceptions of their “constituent parts”, with little in the way of potential erasure.  Even when the divinity of one deity was ultimately subsumed by another (as in the case of Rome and Quirinus/Romulus) the recognition of the essential qualities and foci of the subsumed deity persisted.

Western Heathen polytheism, a modern practice which exists beneath the fairly hegemonic monotheistic cultural force of Protestant theology, does not maintain this basic understanding of divinity on an inherently understood level.  It must ultimately be reoriented and redeveloped.  The threat of erasure of these arguably minority restored traditions and beliefs by the larger mass is very real, especially when done out of convenience or an ignorance of theological concerns.  The false perception of a singular Heathen identity only serves to reinforce this potentially disrupting and diminishing paradigm.  

Reductionist theology, for a lack of a better term, isn’t the pluralistic understanding which most traditional polytheistic theologies are known for.  It is ultimately the product of an incomplete and haphazard theological understanding, one which possesses an inherently limiting effect on one’s exploration of the vibrancy of polytheistic worship.  Understanding the multiple nuances of divinity from functional foci, to innate contexts that intersect their expression within the religion, to a myriad of other discussion which are ultimately beyond the scope of this paper, are crucial to the proper expression of religious action and right ritualism.

Misunderstanding these concepts impacts more than simple acceptance of differing deities.  They potentially risk significant repercussions within the very structure of the religious enactment itself.  The end result is not an offense to practitioners, but a fundamentally dangerous mistake in the performance of ritual – one which possesses theological consequences.

Associating Ēastre with Iðunn due to these theological implications does nothing to further the cult worship of either and instead reduces a characteristically Anglo-Saxon deity to subservient and lackluster role under a more dominant cultural force.  Heathens who are of differing cultural orientations from the Anglo-Saxon exegesis are more than capable of (if not encouraged in) engaging in Ēastre’s cult; this is not an admonition of worship or an attempt at “divine gatekeeping” in this regard.  

What this is constitutes a discussion on the realities of realistic syncretism and divine commingling in light of concerns with proper practice and religious sensitivity.  Ritualism and orthopraxis ultimately imply a correct form of ritual and practical action, a guide to religious enactment and the proper approach of divinity.  Heathenry, if it continues to be mired in these reductionist tendencies, will never be able to fully embrace its polytheistic quality of religious theology and remain a stunted and lackluster expression of belief.

fin

The Problem of Apples, Pt. III: Words, Icons, and Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 1 Comment

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

In the last entry we discussed the concept of approaching the deity in terms of their functional status within society, as well as detailing some of the pitfalls in a methodology that seeks to look at the religious tradition outside of the social and cultural structure in which it was found.  In this we will endeavor to delve into the background of either deity and discuss how Ēastre and Iðunn compare in deeper terms.

Linguistically and etymologically, the words which came to describe both goddesses are unrelated, and do not come from words of similar root meanings.  Though the reconstruction of linguistic lineages is based on comparative analysis they are still only theoretical, they nevertheless provide useful clues for the understanding of divinity and divine relations.  

The etymological lineage for Iðunn is particularly lacking, and only a handful of name-meanings have been suggested by various scholars [10].  Jacob Grimm associated her name with the Old Saxon idisi, of which the Old Norse dís is a North Germanic cognate [11].  Old Norse dís, meaning “goddess”, is thought to be derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *dīsiz, meaning “goddess”, itself from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European *dʰēs-, taken to mean “holy one, hallow, deity” [12].  This association is, however, unsubstantiated and is at best a hypothetical and as-of-yet unproved theory.

Conversely, the etymology of Ēastre/Eostre has been treated at length variously by scholars in attempt to prove her origination one way or another, whether pan-Germanic, regional, or a simple fabrication of Bede.  Ēastre “is thought to have evolved from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *austrǭ, for “dawn”, which is variously argued to be of uncertain lineage from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“dawn”) or *h₂wes- (“to dawn”) [13].  Any permutation of linguistic ancestry denotes references to the dawn, the act of dawning, a reddish or bright coloration, etc.  An interesting point of consideration is the related term *austraz (“east, dawn”) which also derives itself from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“east”), which may intimate less of a dawn-based facet to Ēastre and more of a directionally oriented one, as the assumption that Ēastre is potentially related to a linguistic shift from the Old English word “ēast” [14].

Comparative etymological study with Ēastre is critical, for Jacob Grimm utilized the naming convention for his popularization of an Old High German Ostarâ in his etymological deconstruction of the then still-used ôstarmânoth.  This Ostarâ is familiar to many contemporary Heathens and Pagans as the Goddess most worshiped on the Spring Equinox.  His ultimate etymological recreation was *austrǭ, already mentioned [15].

Supporters of the etymological connections between Ēastre and a German continental  contemporary point to a remarkable discovery of a series of 150 votive objects discovered in the vicinity of modern day Bonn, Germany.  These votives date from the 2nd to 3rd centuries, and have all been dedicated to a series of regional deities known as the Matronae Austriahenae [16].  Their use in the argument for the support of a pan-Germanic goddess necessitates a brief discussion here.

Initial printings of some of the inscriptions occurred in 1960, but a secondary printing occurred in 1962 containing the following:

MATRONIS

AVSTRIAHENIS

M • ANTONIVS

SENTIVS • P

S • E • S • L • M

“To the Mothers Austriahenae, M. Antonius Sentius, for him and his, gladly and deservedly.”[17]

The similarities between “Austria” in the Austriahenae with Grimm’s austrǭ (and thus with Ēastre) should be readily seen.  The apparent etymological connection between the Matronae Austriahenae and Ēastre appears to satisfy most in the exploration of any continental antecedents to this putative goddess.  Here we have to return again to the etymology of Ēastre as it is supposedly associated with *austrǭ which is, as a term in Shaw’s estimation, consisting of the root to be “east”.  As stated above, these terms are clearly related, but by no means are they cognates nor are they identical or possess any features which would indicate a commonality of association [18].

Given the uncertain suffix of -henae, which is only assumed to correlate with the Latin suffix of -ium and thus denoting a place, it would perhaps not be unwise to assume that the Matronae Austriahenae to be the ‘Mothers of the East’, or “the eastern most people”, perhaps those surrounding the legionary fortress of Bonna.  This is circumstantially supported by Shaw’s interpretation of the existence of the Austriates as a social or tribal group [19].  

In light of this, the assumed correlation of Ēastre with *austrǭ is apparently unfounded.  Shaw further, following Sermon and McKitterick, supports the influence of a more unconventional method of transmission of Ēastre/Ēostre-influenced names into the Old High German which gave rise to Grimm’s Ostarâ and ostarâmânoth.  It is not at all implausible that conversion activity in the region, undertaken by Anglo-Saxon missionaries who repeatedly requested the treatises of Bede and his contemporaries from their Northumbrian colleagues for a lengthy period of time, helped disseminate the material and was not indicative of a pan-Germanic goddess figure [20].  This is an opinion that the author holds.

With the differences in etymological lineage established, some word should be said about presumed and inherent iconographies between both of these deities.  Iconography and image remnants are another significant batch of evidence in the understanding of the divine.  Again, these are particularly under-attested for the lesser known Anglo-Saxon deities and only assumed through their roles in society and estimated cults; the epigraphic corpus is unfortunately scant.  There are no known native depictions of Ēastre in an Anglo-Saxon context, and the images alluded to her cult in particular are based off of comparative study with the festivals of the period of the year of Ēostremonath from Germanic and Germanic-adjacent peoples [21].

Comparatively, there is merit to the idea in order to develop a more thorough understanding of the cult of a deity, as this forms the basis of reconstructionist methodology.  It is often utilized in polytheistic practices to fill in the holes that may be had through the shoddy material record.

Ēastre is linked with Iðunn through the assumption of iconographic similarity with other Northern European goddesses, notably the connection to the Matronae Austriahenae.  As a whole, the Matronae tend to consist of similar iconography, with fruit often being associated with deities particularly concerned with fertility, wealth, and plenty, as well as who they bless with their good fortune.  As Ēastre has been commonly and paradoxically characterized as a spring or fertility goddess, the assumption is that fruit is a valid representative symbol for her.  

At best, this is tenuous, as there are a number of concerns regarding the proliferation of apples and their role in early Germanic society from which the Old English came.

Iðunn is inextricably associated with a specific iconography which has become intrinsically representative of her mythology: that of the apple, and her role in the maintenance of the divine youth of the gods.  This iconography is itself thought to be a representative remnant of a fundamental Proto-Indo-European mythological construct, as the origination of it in the North Germanic mythos is uncertain.  Whatever the origin of this, Iðunn herself is an enigmatic figure of an uncertain linguistic etymology.  H.R. Ellis-Davidson claims it was possible that her figure was an extra-Germanic origin and later borrowing, identifying both the Celtic West (Ireland) or the classical world as probable transmitters of the myth [22].  The latter classical influence would be in mimicry of the Garden of the Hesperides.  Davidson also claims that fruit had a long association with the gods in traditional Germanic paganism and particularly notes that the apple is representative of this [23], although this line of inquiry appears to be largely unrecoverable.

Iðunn’s account in the Skáldskaparmál mirrors other Indo-European mythologies centered around the iconography of apples, replicating in a certain capacity through Greek and Irish mythology primarily and forming the basis of Davidson’s claims of mythological transmission.  Indo-European myth contains several references to the incidence of apples, as explored in Roger Woodard’s book To Fetch Some Golden Apples.  Variously identified as apples, quinces, or oranges, these iconographic features have become a staple of mythological convention, most common to modern Westerners through the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden, although the role of the apple is inherently different.

It is ironic that those who would utilize Dumézil ’s functionalist approach for linguistic commonality would be willing to take a less-literal position to this mythological iconography and assume that representations of apples are not in actuality supposed to represent apples.  If apples are Iðunn’s most recognizable feature – who fundamentally is identified as a fertility and rejuvenatory goddess [24], then some commonality in representation should occur.   The lack of the emphasis, indeed, the lack of an identifiable role of the apple in early Germanic society as a whole, casts some doubt on the pan-Germanic association that Davidson would otherwise claim.

Native apples have grown wild in Britain since the Neolithic period, however these were crab apples consisting of a particularly bitter flavor for much in the way of culinary use.  They were sparsely scattered, as well, as they were of an anti-gregarious tree type which limited their proliferation [25].  The Mediterranean had known more palatable varieties of apple since at least the time of the Greeks, having been introduced to them through trade contacts in the Ancient Near East.  These fruits entered into the epics and mythologies, making their appearance in Classical literature by being featured in Homer’s Odyssey.  Eventually, like much of the Germanic world, the introduction of these apple varieties and their system of cultivation came about through the influence and settlement of the Romans [26].

The Roman withdrawal from Britain saw the abandonment or degradation of much of the classical infrastructure and cultural traditions which had taken hold during the period of the Roman administration.  In particular, this included the tending of apple orchards and, presumably, the knowledge of their propagation as the Germanic tribes which pushed into Britain had no known understanding of this agriculture [27].

This lack of awareness of the use and cultivation of the apple in Anglo-Saxon England is presumed by a distinct lack of the appearance of what would be identified as a modern apple – or products made of that fruit – in the Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists [28].  While the Old English language did contain a word which gives rise to the modern word for “apple” (“æppel”) it was used as a general term for fruit of all types, as was the case with the blackberry (“brembel æppel”).  It was not until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period where accounts can be found of the general cultivation of fruit in what can be identified as orchards (“orceard”), with the apple being reintroduced into Britain by the Normans after the Conquest and, even then, consisting of only one account within the Domesday Book [29].

The apple as either literal or metaphorical theological symbol arises only within a Norse context, and is not generally found within a wider Germanic exegesis.  Religious symbols, broadly, retain two particular purposes: practical and representational interpretations.  This is obviously how they interact within the wider community and the role that they take in what is considered performative acts as compared with how the symbols are thrown back to the religious object or belief in question and are containing representative qualities [30].  Of course, theological symbolism is inherently difficult to interpret as this thinking is highly contextual, easily misinterpreted, and consists of varying qualities of implied and ascribed meaning.  These meaning-contexts are subtle, as are the ways in which these constructs are portrayed.

In the Republic, Plato first asserted that it was mainly through repetition and imitation in which the spiritual parts of the soul is educated – that is, the ways in which one’s religiosity and spiritual paradigm were inculcated.  This is in contrast to the ways in which one’s desires and rationality are likewise informed [31].  These symbols can both be divine hypotheses and representations of the devotion of the worshiper, which are only realized through proper cultural interpretation.  Repetition and imitation would imply a reoccurrence of imagery, which is woefully under represented in Anglo-Saxon art, mythology, and society, as shown.  

What is shown is that on all the levels that have been discussed – the linguistic, symbolic, and iconographic – that there is truly no connection or similarities between the two deities other than in the most superficial of ways.  Even the connection to the Matronae Austriaheae are weak attempts at forcibly fitting the evidence into the hypothesis that Grimm had previously championed.  These features, seemingly innocuous and artifacts of their time and place in history, are absolutely important to the proper understanding of the context of divinity so that one can engage ritually with them.


Endnotes, pt. III

[10] John Lindow, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (2001) gives her meaning as ‘Ever Young’, while Andy Orchard in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (1997) gives as Iðunna’s meaning ‘Rejuvenator’.  Rudolf Simek in Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) gives the meaning of her name to be ‘The Rejuvenating One’.  A clear connection to the mythology of her being the guardian of the Asgardian youth and immortality is apparent.

[11] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. I (London: George Bell and Sons, 1882) p. 402.

[12] Wiktionary. “dís.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified May 25 2017, accessed May 17, 2017. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/d%C3%ADs

[13] Wiktionary.  “Easter.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified March 25, 2017, accessed: May 17 2017. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Easter

[14] Wiktionary. “Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz”, Wiktionary: The Free Dictionary.  Last modified March 27, 2017.  Accessed May 17, 2017.  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz

[15] Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. I, p. 291.

[16] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.  No images of the iconography of the Matronae Austriahenae have been published. It is presumed that they were of a similar iconographic continuum with other Matronae figures found throughout the Continent, of which their association with “fruit” (and thus, apples) is assumed.  This is especially notable in traditions that seek to reconstruct a pre-Germanic Proto-Indo-European religious identity as found with the PIE Religion website at: http://piereligion.org/easter.html.

[17] Alfred Merlin (ed.), “Item 99”, l’Annee Epigraphique, Presses Universitaires de Frances, Paris, 1963.  Elaboration by author.

[18] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.

[19] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.

[20] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.  This naturally intersects with Shaw’s theory that Bede revived the “character” of Ēastre in the writing of his works.

[21] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. II (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883) p. 380.

[22] H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 165.

[23] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[24] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[25] Contributors, “A Brief History of Apples and Pears in UK”, English Apples & Pears, accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.englishapplesandpears.co.uk/history_of_apples_in_uk.php.

[26] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[27] Peter C. Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”, Ða Engliscan Gesiðas: The English Companions, March 18, 2011, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.tha-engliscan-gesithas.org.uk/archives/the-alcoholic-drinks-of-the-anglo-saxons.

[28] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[29] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[30] Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, (New York City: SUNY Press, 1996), p. 135.

[31] Plato, The Republic.  See books 2 and 3, respectively.

 

Part IV can be found here.